The Wild West: Sierra Leone

"Nature is by and large to be found out of doors, a location where, it cannot be argued, there are never enough comfortable chairs." -Fran Lebowitz

As the plane hovered over the endless forests and spiderweb of rivers of the West African landscape, all I could feel was anticipation welling up inside of me. I mentally begged the pilot to turn around, "Take me back to Kenya where life is comfortable and I at least know what I'm doing! (or at least I think I do)" Of course the pilot did no such thing and before I knew it we were touching down in Monrovia, Liberia, the last stop on this VERY long journey from Nairobi to Freetown. Monrovia's main international airport is little more than an airstrip surrounded by a few sheds and a lot of UN equipment and tents. Welcome to the wild west of Africa. As we took off again the anticipation bubble burst, and was replaced with solid resignation. "Here goes nothing." Finally touching down in Freetown all the disembarking passengers eyed eachother up like hawks. The look was the same between everybody and we filed off the plane, "What are YOU doing here?" I got a few extra glances because I was the only young, foreign woman getting off. In total there was: a military/ex-military from somewhere in Eastern Europe, a couple of American diplomats who were clearly more practical than most (probably a return visit), a young Western European (possibly Italian) or American guy who I'd pick for a journalist or some kind of writer, and finally an older woman who was likely doing missionary work in the country. Flights and waiting around in airports gets pretty boring after the third layover in a day, so people-watching to the rescue! I assure you I wasn't staring.

Outside the airport my volunteer coordinator, Collins, was waiting with a couple other guys who are part of the organization I was working for. First impressions of Sierra Leone, were favourable, not too drastically different from Kenya, people generally wore less clothing, looked less healthy, and the public transportation was... less than roadworthy, but the mini-buss drivers still ignored all road rules, people stopped to look at the whiteperson, and the land around me wash lush. We took a ferry across to the main city of Freetown, before heading out to the suburb of Wellington where I would be staying. The most obvious difference between East and West Africa, though, was the climate; what I considered unbearably hot in Kenya, would have been pleasant here. The heat and humidity were immediately overwhelming, and when I arrived it was already dusk. Canadians were not made for this kind of heat.

The next morning I found out just how hot it actually was. Temperatures generally sat at or above 35C with a humidity of 60-80% on top of that, making it feel more like 40-something. Imagine living your life in a sauna. The air is hot and sticky, simply moving elicits a downpour of sweat from my forehead. The sun just made all of this even worse. Why didn't anybody warn me about this?! Oh well, I'll survive and just drink a lot of water.

I lived in a compound that encompassed several smaller houses built around a courtyard/common area. I was introduced to everyone in the compound and started working on remembering names and faces. Everyone was very kind and so pleased to have a foreign volunteer there with them. The women generally did all the cooking, the men were either working, or socializing during the day. In the evenings as washing was being done, people would often sit outside on wooden benches and listen to the sound of a crackling radio report the latest BBC news on regional and international issues. Everyone was very concerned about the Libyan conflict, especially because Libya has been a large contributor to that country's development. I imagined it would be similar in some ways to going back in time 100 years in Canada.

Here's a little background about Sierra Leone to give everyone a better idea of the country's past and put the present into context. The Republic of Sierra Leone was declared an independent state in 1961 after decades of British colonial rule. This year will be the 50th anniversary of independence and there is evidence of this everywhere in Freetown. The small country (about the size of New Brunswick, or Ireland), boasts resource exports including palm products and the infamously troubled diamond industry. Its climate is one of the hottest and wettest in West Africa with a rainy season that stretches from May until September-October. It's situated 8 degrees north of the equator, on par with Venezuela and Colombia in South America. The population is religiously divided, about 60% of Leoneans are Muslim, 30% are Christian, and the remaining 10% follow traditional religious practices, although secret societies (cults) remain very popular regardless of religious beliefs. Surprisingly (to me) all the religions get along with very little tension between them. Children are even taught that regardless of the religion that they were raised with, they can chose whichever religion suits them best. There are many tribes within the country, all get along amicably, and most have their own languages, but English and Krio (a variation of English brought over by freed slaves from the Americas in the 19th century) are national languages. In the 1990's to early 2000's the country was thrown into a violent civil war that destroyed much of the infrastructure that had been built since independence. The conflict that had spilled over from neighbouring Liberia, pitted the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) against the government, both claiming to represent the best interests of the people, but resorting to violence to prove their point. If you want to see Hollywood's take on the civil war, "Blood Diamond," starring Leonardo DiCaprio will fill in the gory details. Today, the country is still feeling the effects, struggling to rebuild infrastructure and push forward with development.

The capital city of Freetown was a true dose of crazy, that made everything I had seen in the Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and even East Africa pale in comparison. The streets wind up and down through neighbourhoods that look like villages within the city. Downtown, there aren't many distinguishable landmarks for a confused foreigner like me to orient myself with, luckily I was always with someone from the volunteer organization who had no trouble navigating. Everything was very crowded, and there was barely enough room to walk between the man-powered carts, motorbikes, mini-buses, cars, massive trucks, and of course locals weaving their way through it all carrying baskets, or other items (like 2 x 4's), on their heads. Ducking and dodging my way through the city I was faced with another problem: the sidewalks. The sidewalks were almost scarier than the streets; built over a concrete drainage gutter, the cement slabs I was walking on would occasionally bounce, wobble, or simply not exist, with exposed metal rods in their place. YIKES! Amid all the craziness I did catch glimpses of the traditional colourful fabrics, and a variety of street vendors selling everything from designer knockoffs to chickens out of a cooler. This is a whole different dimension of crazy.

The school I visited in Wellington occupies an older house that has now been converted into a two-floor school for about 135 children between the ages of 3 and 12. The kids learn all their basic subjects and while I was there, were also preparing for a school-wide sports day. The teachers don't have access to many resources: copies of the curriculum, textbooks, and other simple materials are in short supply. This is the case for most of the schools across the country. In government run schools, the situation is even worse, with teachers often going years without receiving a salary, which is to be paid by the government. Regardless of what they have, or do not have, these teachers genuinely care about their students.

In Wellington, I started learning a few practical "Salone" (Sierre Leone) things, like eating rice one-handed. I didn't pay attention when one of the women in the compound invited me to eat with her, and I immediately starting making a ball of rice tossing it from one hand to the other. Ooops, I forgot that the lady I was eating with was Muslim, so I should only use my right hand out of etiquette. In case anyone feels the urge to try this, it's not as easy as you may think! There is a specific method, but despite having someone to show me how to eat properly, I still ended up with rice and sauce all over my face and hand. The other people living in the compound thought it was hilarious, but I was very proud of myself regardless. I also went to fetch water, and was strictly warned not to carry the full 20L jerrycan on my head like everyone else was doing. Winding my way through the hills and houses for the short 5min trip, I dutifully carried the plastic container on my hip, inciting laughter and lots of pointing and staring at the silly Upoto who didn't know how to carry water. It would have not been as bad if I was a man, not knowing how to carry things on your head would have been somewhat more excusable. I made it back without spilling and was greeting with applause.

After a week in Wellington I headed out to the village of Kambia-Makema
(Kam-bee-ya/Ma-kay-ma). Small might be an understatement, but it was still one of the largest villages in the chiefdom and home to the Paramount Chief (who represents the chiefdom for matters in Freetown). Village life is best described to someone from the Western world, as basic. Each morning families get up before dawn and start preparing for the day's meals, pounding rice and maize flour or making a trip to the grinding mill. Water must be fetched for cooking, and plants set out for drying. Then children will go off to school from 8am until 2pm, before coming home to help prepare the evening meal and do household chores. At night people often sit around the remains of the coking fire as the children are put to bed. Electricity may have been spotty in the capital, but out here it was non-existent. The closest electricity access was a local market about 15km away. I was so thankful my cell phone had a long battery life!

Visiting the schools was an interesting experience. Corporal punishment is alive and well here in Sierra Leone, and is a part of daily life for children. I was once told, "How can we teach a child to listen if there is not punishment?" The parents and teachers know that development organizations and mission groups working in the country don't approve of their methods, but to the locals it's just another outsider trying to tell them what to do. This subject gets especially sensitive when it has anything to do with the family. Female enrollment in schools also shows evidence of a two-tiered approach to education in the home. After grade four the number of girls attending school significantly drops to the point where in a class of 60 grade nine students , eight of them were girls. Girls are still expected to help around the home and parents don't see the reasoning behind sending them away to school where they won't learn the practical tools they need to raise a family or look after a household. A lot of girls also drop out because of early pregnancies and poor access to any form of birth control. This issue also affects elementary grades (usually 4-6) because many girls don't start school at the same age as their male peers, and may be delayed several years. It wasn't uncommon for me to find girls my own age in 5th of 6th grade. Like in Wellington, access to school materials was difficult but they made the most of what they did have. One of the schools in the village was even top ranked on the national primary exams for the entire district, proving that a lack of materials, and class sizes often exceeding 60 are no barriers to education.

The food that was prepared for me in the village was delicious, but I'm positive the diet would have caused me to have a heart attack before I was 30. In the morning it was greasy french fries with home made plantain chips (basically deep fried banana slices), with deep fried scrambled eggs and onions. This was topped off with an extra large mug of steaming hot full fat cream (made from powder). Lunch, if I wasn't convincing enough that I didn't need it, was usually a whole pineapple and whatever else they could try to fit on my plate. Then came dinner with enough rice to feed a family of four and a bean/fish/chicken sauce cooked in palm oil with a 1/2 inch think layer of oil still sitting on top. I was also brought a large, doughy baguette almost daily that I was expected to eat before it went stale. I certainly didn't go hungry! After a few days of this I was determined to make some changes, but no matter how hard I tried nothing was about to change how much these stubborn women thought I should be eating in a day. It didn't help that I was polishing off 3L of water a day because of the heat and humidity. With all that water in my stomach I barely had room for half the food they were trying to feed me! To not eat was very offensive and immediately everyone in the village would come knocking on the door to my room, demanding to know if I was sick.If nothing else the villagers certainly cared about me.

I was welcomed to the village by a throng of screaming children who stampeded towards me just trying to grab a hold of the Upoto. It was very strange when children would reach out and just try to touch my skin, it was so different to them they didn't know what to expect. I quickly got used to kids practically petting my arms and fingers just to learn what my skin felt like. Some of the local women started singing and dancing in a welcome dance tat I happily joined in, much to everyone's amusement. I discovered that the typical custom was that any time I passed someone I needed to go over and properly greet them with long hand shakes and a series of greetings in the local language of Temne. This meant that a walk that should take 5min often took 15 because of all the stops along the way. No one is ever in a rush here.

The day after my arrival I was formally greeted with a welcome ceremony where all the chiefs and elders were invited and sat on either side of me in throne-like chairs on a raised platform. Greetings were exchanged (with the help of a translator), which included several interruptions as the women burst into song and dance, and women from another village arrive beating drums and singing as well. The men seemed to take the hint, and when the women stood up, the men immediately cleared away all the benches and retreated to the back of the enclosure. This was an amazing cultural experience that not many foreigners would ever get to take part in.

In the village, I set up an endless schedule of meetings to try to understand how everything worked and what the villagers wanted out of the solar-powered study centre I was trying to set up. I think everyone was a little surprised by all the questions I asked, but they didn't seem to mind. I got my hair braided in traditional Salone fashion, and practised carrying buckets of water on my head. I also went to church one Sunday morning, that was an experience-and-a-half! I walked in to a small group of young men singing and dancing like they were possessed. I turned to my friend that had brought me with wide-eyes and said, "This is NOT like church in Canada!" I felt very out of place as the only woman, and of course the only white person. I was a little scared of what would happen next, and wanted nothing more than to turn around and walk right back out the door. Then one of the boys turned around and I recognized him, he was the Paramount Chief's 12-year-old grandson and was always around the house where I was staying. Abdulai gave me a wink and a smile, that gave me the confidence to walk up and sit down as soon as the song ended. The service was more of an attempt at conversion, than preaching to the faithful, with lots of loud interjections and plenty of occasions where everyone shouted: "A-men!" The preacher even compared me to Jesus coming down from the heavens (the developed world) to save Hell (Sierra Leone) to save the people. For anyone who hasn't had the opportunity, being compared to Jesus is not a particularly comfortable experience. After the service I decided to chalk it all up to experience and move on, quickly.

After about a week in the village I received a message from home that things had come up, and I needed to return home as soon as possible. It came as a bit of a surprise but also a relief in some ways, because I had been struggling to adjust to some of the intricacies of Salone culture. Within days I was sitting in the airport awaiting my flight. I was leaving Sierra Leone filled with just as much anticipation as when I arrived.

The ending may have been abrupt, but it was just another adventure to add to my collection that I've accumulated over the past six months. My head was spinning and it wasn't until a couple weeks after I'd gotten home that I truly took stock of everything I had lived on my travels. That will have to be another post.


Just like the last post, I have already put photos up on Facebook, so in case you haven't seen them here's the public link:



No comments:

Post a Comment